The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist

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When William Beebe needed to know what was going on in the depths of the ocean, he had himself lowered a half-mile down in a four-foot steel sphere to see-five times deeper than anyone had ever gone in the 1930s. When he wanted to trace the evolution of pheasants in 1910, he trekked on foot through the mountains and jungles of the Far East to locate every species. To decipher the complex ecology of the tropics, he studied the interactions of every creature and plant in a small area from the top down, setting the emerging field of tropical ecology into dynamic motion.

William Beebe's curiosity about the natural world was insatiable, and he did nothing by halves. As the first biographer to see the letters and private journals Beebe kept from 1887 until his death in 1962, science writer Carol Grant Gould brings the life and times of this groundbreaking scientist and explorer compellingly to light.

From the Galapagos Islands to the jungles of British Guiana, from the Bronx Zoo to the deep seas, Beebe's biography is a riveting adventure. A best-selling author in his own time, Beebe was a fearless explorer and thoughtful scientist who put his life on the line in pursuit of knowledge. The unique glimpses he provided into the complex web of interactions that keeps the earth alive and breathing have inspired generations of conservationists and ecologists. This exciting biography of a great naturalist brings William Beebe at last to the recognition he deserves.

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Editorial Reviews

Natural History
"Drawing on Crane's records, made available in 1989, and a host of other sources, Gould has written an engrossing account of Beebe's professional and personal life, effectively compressing his decades of hyperactivity into a mere 400 pages."
Seattle Times
"[Gould] has written a biography worthy of Beebe. It makes compelling and, better yet, inspiring reading for anyone interested in the natural world."
Natural History Magazine
"Drawing on Crane's records, made available in 1989, and a host of other sources, Gould has written an engrossing account of Beebe's professional and personal life, effectively compressing his decades of hyperactivity into a mere 400 pages."
The New York Times
"A vivid portrait."
author of Conservation and Biodiversity - Andrew P. Dobson
"William Beebe's life and work form a vital link between the age of Wallace and Darwin and today's heroes of conservation. Carol Gould's magnificent biography vividly brings Beebe to life. His life should be an inspiration both to future conservation biologists and to anyone who started out collecting bugs in their own back yard."
discoverer of the Titanic - Dr. Robert D. Ballard
"William Beebe was one of my boyhood heroes, who I followed through his articles in National Geographic Magazine. Now, thanks to the wonderful and thorough research of Carol Gould, I know the man behind those stories."
Senior Conservationist, Wildlife Conservation Society - William Conway
"A childhood spent collecting bugs and birds led William Beebe to a job at the Bronx Zoo and then to an extraordinary career of exploration, science, and writing. He wrote so beautifully of tropical and undersea wildlife that his books influenced thousands, he went deeper than anyone ever before to observe ocean depths, and he carried out plant-by-plant, bird-by-bird, beetle-by-butterfly studies that were among the first in tropical ecology. And yet he still found time to become a confidant of Teddy Roosevelt, a familiar of Noël Coward and Katherine Hepburn, and an accomplished tennis player. Carol Gould gained first access to Beebe's meticulous notes but delved much deeper. The result is an engrossing portrait of a very human but unusually important naturalist of the 20th century."
author of Lives of a Biologist - John Tyler Bonner
"In this delightful book Carol Gould has brought to light something we may have forgotten: the intensive pursuit of natural history in the early part of the twentieth century. And there is no better way of telling the story than around the central and fascinating figure of William Beebe."
Natural History

"Drawing on Crane's records, made available in 1989, and a host of other sources, Gould has written an engrossing account of Beebe's professional and personal life, effectively compressing his decades of hyperactivity into a mere 400 pages."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597261074
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2006
  • Series: QSI Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

CAROL GRANT GOULD has written for publications ranging from The New York Times to Psychology Today and Harpers . She is coauthor ofBiological Science (Norton, 1997),  The Honey Bee (Scientific American Library,1988), Sexual Selection (Scientific American Library, 1989), and The Animal Mind (Scientific American Library, 1994).

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Read an Excerpt

The Remarkable Life of William Beebe

Explorer and Naturalist

By Carol Grant Gould


Copyright © 2004 Carol Grant Gould
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-145-0


Counting Crows

To be a Naturalist is better than to be a King. William Beebe, journal, 12.31.1893

GROWING UP IN THE LATE 1800s with a keen awareness of the natural world was easy. The climate, whether hot or cold, penetrated every building and shelter; accident and disease raged unabated by effective medical intervention; animals were ever present as transportation, labor, and food. Outside even the densest cities wilderness pressed in, offering adventure, sport, and danger. Without television or radio, people were alert to any aspect of the world that could provide diversion, and nature was the most universally accessible form of entertainment. Even city children grew up watching, collecting, and playing with whatever they could find or catch.

What set someone like Will Beebe apart from other childish collectors was that he persisted until he knew everything there was to know about every creature, stone, or shell he found. What set the adult Beebe apart from explorers such as Byrd, Shackleton, or Hillary was that he was a scientist first. His explorations were for the sole end of discovering more about the natural world, whether in the Himalayas, the jungles of British Guiana, or the depths of the sea. He never explored unknown regions unless he felt a pressing need to find out how the creatures that lived there developed, survived, and interacted. Doing anything just to have done it was, to his way of thinking, the depth of folly.

That said, Will Beebe never shirked danger. He always believed, with good reason, that he led a charmed life. Born in 1877 to educated, hardworking parents devoted to each other and to their only child, he grew up self-confident and outgoing, driven by a nervous energy and a work ethic that was daunting to friends and colleagues alike. His father, Charles, was one of four sons of a prosperous Brooklyn paper merchant. Roderick Beebe Sr. had been one of the first to recognize the possibilities of acting as a middleman between the mammoth upstate paper and pulp companies, and manufacturers who could use their output. After college he put his sons to work in the family business; Charles and his identical twin brother, Clarence, remained with it throughout their lives.

The picturesque town of Glens Falls, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, was a frequent stop on the route of any young paper salesman. With its thriving twin pulp mills, the town was home to many well-to-do businessmen; the young sales representatives were constantly in and out of the houses of the mill owners and their customers. At one of these houses Charles Beebe met Henrietta Marie Younglove, daughter of John Younglove and Elizabeth Van Buren Geer.

The Geers and Van Burens, both powerful forces in Glens Falls society and politics, were not entirely happy with the romance between their offspring and the son of a salesman from New York City. Nettie's mother, Elizabeth, was the oldest in a family of six girls, daughters of a state judge and cousins of President Martin Van Buren. All six had been educated at the elite Glens Falls Academy to display the era's requisite skills, polished with a comely veneer of gentility. Elizabeth's husband, Nettie's father, had never been a success, and had to bring his small family back to live with the Geers. Another one of the sisters had "run off" and made what in Geer eyes was a bad marriage. As a result, Nettie knew she needed to be tactful when she presented a Brooklyn salesman as her future husband.

The Beebes had their own share of family pride. Charles's twin, Clarence, eventually assembled and published a massive genealogy tracing the Beebe name back to John Beebe of Broughton, England, who had come to America in 1650, and even to Richard and Guillaume de Boebe, Norman knights in the retinue of William the Conqueror. And Charles himself was one of those knights of the newly prosperous middle class, a "college man" from Cornell.

Charles's affability and courtly bearing combined with his promising business prospects to win the family's approval, and Nettie and Charles were married at Judge Geer's substantial home on a hill overlooking Glens Falls on June 28, 1876. The couple then moved to Brooklyn, where they lived with Clarence and the elder Beebes for a time before moving into their own home nearby. On July 29, 1877, Charles William, who would be known as Will, was born in Brooklyn. The Beebes' only other child, John Younglove, died before his second birthday.

When Charles had built up a strong customer base, he moved the family across the Hudson to East Orange, New Jersey. In those days, East Orange was an ideal place for a family that had business in New York but wanted to raise a child outside the city. To Nettie, who had always had access to the hills and forests of upstate New York, the city and even busy "suburban" Brooklyn were stifling. East Orange was miles away, across the Hudson River and the water meadows of New Jersey. It boasted modern, efficient train links to both the city and upstate, helpful because Charles's business had begun to take him more and more frequently to the big paper mills on Lake Ontario, near Gouverneur, New York. Most important to the education-conscious Beebes, East Orange was being settled by well-to-do commuter families committed to cultural refinements and a fine school system.

During those early years at 73 Ashland Avenue in East Orange, Will took full advantage of the suburban neighborhood. His father, who had added talc to his list of sales products, was seldom at home. Nettie made sure Will did his schoolwork, and supplemented it with lessons in music and natural history. They were not wealthy, and Will helped at home by running errands and weeding the tiny yard, sometimes for small sums of money, which he hoarded zealously.

The house itself was typical of the Victorian row houses that were springing up along the rail lines across northern New Jersey and southern New York. Three stories tall and very narrow, it had three gable windows in the attic, which looked out over woods and hills—now completely built up—to a range of low mountains. As an adult, Will remembered clambering out of the gable windows onto the roof to watch the sunset, then transcribing his perceptions into his notebook.

The small house was stretched past its limits by the arrival of Nettie's Aunt Abby and Aunt Hetty, who moved in with their niece and her family in 1884. Nettie and Will had grown to enjoy their privacy, spiced deliciously by Charles's visits, with their cozy evenings of talk about Will and his achievements, and stories of the wild and rugged forests of upstate New York where Charles spent much of his time. But the maiden aunts, the last of the female Geer household, were family, and the Beebes needed the small rent the ladies would pay. So the aunts descended, bringing their straitlaced, querulous ways along with their endless curiosity.

Because Charles was so often away, Will and his mother wrote letters to him almost daily, letters that Charles stored carefully in a box in his room in Gouverneur. Discolored and cracking today, they bear sketches of shells, animals, tracks, and birds' eggs along with descriptions, in a cramped, boyish hand, of football games, classroom pranks, and a bicycle he wistfully admired. They tell of Aunt Abby's fits and Aunt Hetty's snooping, and of the way Will and his mother would kick each other conspiratorially under the table when Aunt Hettywould say something excessively genteel or disparage the soft but pervasive Brooklyn accent that Will was acquiring from his father.

Perhaps most important, the act of writing these letters, which were lovingly read and meticulously answered by an absent father, established in the young boy a lifelong habit of recording every event, every detail he noticed. The earliest surviving letter, written when Will was eight, reported to his father that he had climbed the tree in the front yard to collect some robin's eggs, and had put them in his mouth for safekeeping while he descended. But in a rough landing, "I swallered them."

At the end of the nineteenth century, the world was full of mysteries that seemed accessible to any determined seeker. Vast areas remained unexplored, skies rang with the songs of unknown birds, the oceans teemed with unimaginable forms. Anyone with curiosity could be a naturalist; any boy with a spirit of adventure could be an explorer. Most children of upwardly mobile parents were encouraged to learn about nature the way today's children are given computer classes: it was both education and entertainment.

The newly opened American Museum of Natural History in Central Park was one of New York City's greatest tributes to the growing public demand for knowledge about science. For years, groups of philanthropists and scientists had tried to erect a natural history museum in the New York region. Every great city in Europe boasted one, and many felt that New York could never aspire to cultural equality without its own. Harvard University boasted the great Agassiz Museum, and Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian, but New York's citizens seemed doomed to ignorance of the world beyond bricks and asphalt.

By 1869, however, a group of education-minded donors had braved Boss Tweed's opposition to obtain a charter, as well as the deeds to a desolate sea of mud, squatters' shanties, and mangy goats. This wasteland would become the fashionable area surrounding Central Park, home to not only the American Museum but its sister institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1874 President Grant laid the cornerstone for the first building of the massive museum complex. In 1877, the year Will Beebe was born, the American Museum of Natural History opened its doors, stocked with vast collections of beetles and bones and curiosities from all corners of the world.

The great mission of the natural history museum was at that time to act as guardian of nature's riches and educator of the people. Naturalists had been working steadily through the centuries to accumulate and catalog all the plants and animals in nature—an undertaking whose end continued to recede as new frontiers disclosed unimagined species, and as new concepts of an evolving world gained adherents over the old idea of a static creation. Museums housed collections of flora and fauna, current and extinct, from all corners of the world; they provided scholars—now as then—with research materials, and the public with exposure to exotic realms and ideas they were unlikely to experience elsewhere.

On Will's first awed visits, painters were still working on the landscapes that would be background for the grand dioramas, glass cases of stuffed specimens in which different habitats, meticulously reproduced down to the tiniest creatures and plants, would be displayed. In the warren of offices and laboratories of the upper floors scientists hunkered over microscopes and trays of rocks or shells or preserved insects, studying them for the minute differences that identified them as to species or sex. Accommodating staff members answered the questions of curious children, and identified flowers or creatures or minerals they brought in. There was always a chance that a specimen clutched in a small grubby fist would be a new species, as yet uncataloged, which might add to the compendium of knowledge. On Saturdays noted scientists gave lectures, and Will attended as many as he could. To his wondering eyes, the life of a naturalist was the highest and most exciting calling anyone could aspire to.

For Nettie Younglove, the wild foothills of the Adirondacks had been a refuge from the repressive gentility of the Geer household, inspiring her to become knowledgeable about botany. Trained as a teacher, she entertained Will and his friends by taking them on nature walks, encouraging them to make collections and to learn the names and life histories of the things they collected. When they were older, she held natural history classes for Will and his best friend, Warrie Mountain, after school. "Warrie came over and Mama heard our lessons, facts & essays," Will wrote his father. "Our next essays will be as follows: Warrie's, Alligators, & mine: Snakes. (I love you.) I think I can find a great deal to write about them." Previous essays had been on vultures and storks; the next week's were to be on kangaroos and monkeys. In the first essay, Will wrote, Warrie had written more, but Will's had been more interesting. "I want you to try to learn the orders, etc.," the twelve-year-old wrote to his father, "& when you come down you can recite them to me, & if you don't get them good, you get a spanking, & sent to bed."

Nettie taught herself the techniques of preservation so she could teach the boys, and gave them small experiments to conduct. Spurred by magazines published by the burgeoning Audubon clubs, she started Will on a habit he never outgrew: counting crows as they wheeled overhead. This exercise helped him develop an ability to gauge flock size from a representative sample; the data from researchers and novice bird watchers around the country were used in almanacs to calculate and forecast seasonal weather, and by ornithologists to track migration patterns. Will mastered the technique and religiously recorded numbers and direction with date and time in his journals, feeling part of the scientific community as he wrote.

When Will was eleven, his parents took him to be assessed at Fowler and Wells Phrenological Cabinet on Broadway. Phrenologists claimed to be able to read a person's intellectual and moral character from his or her skull, and many nineteenth-century children were subjected to this practice until it was supplanted by psychological test batteries. Nettie put great stock in the reading. The learned man determined, after detailed skull measurements—and a lengthy consultation with the subject—that Will had great "executive" powers. "This boy is smart, quick, clear-headed, and he is a good talker and a critic. He reads strangers well and has strong preferences and prejudices. He is fond of music, and of mechanism and he is going to be a strong character if he can have the body—the handle, as it were,—well developed." He cautioned against too much emphasis on "mental" education, which was already precociously developed, and stressed physical culture and a healthy diet. The Beebes were confirmed in their belief that their son was destined for great things, but for the rest of his life, Will would tell friends that he knew from this moment that he would never be a great intellectual force—his head was too small.



A cabinet of eggs is not only an interesting object, but if the owner has collected them himself, he must necessarily acquire an amount of scientific knowledge that will not only at once make him an authority upon ornithology, even among learned men, but at the same time put him ahead of all the boys in wood-craft.

Daniel Beard, The American Boy's Handy Book

ALTHOUGH CHARLES BEEBE'S work revolved around the clay and talc mines and pulp mills of northern New York, he lived in what seemed to his suburban son a paradise of unspoiled wilderness. In his spare time Charles wrote voluminously to Nettie and Will of hunting and fishing trips, birds he had seen, minerals he had collected. In the spring of 1891 he mentioned that he might send thirteen-year-old Will a stuffed owl. For the next six weeks every letter Will wrote to his father displayed the perseverance the boy's parents had worked so hard to implant in him: Had Papa found an owl yet? Was the taxidermist there good? When would it arrive? Was he aware that it had not come yet?

My very dear Pop:—

I have only got a few minutes to write you in, so I can't write a very long letter, as it is 9 o'clock. The Owl came this morning, so this noon I opened it. Isn't itlovely! It greatly exceeded my expectations.... The box in which the Owl came will make a lovely cabinet, & tomorrow I am going to get boards, etc. & Mama is going to help me make a nice one.... I have got a good beginning now, of 5 stuffed birds, & 1 stuffed mole, & I am going to have a splendid collection of stuffed things. I have got about 50 shells named, & about 35 or 40 different minerals (named).... P.S. Come over early Saturday. Lots of love, Will.


Excerpted from The Remarkable Life of William Beebe by Carol Grant Gould. Copyright © 2004 Carol Grant Gould. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PART I. Naturalist
Chapter 1. Counting Crows
Chapter 2. Fledging
Chapter 3. Portrait of the Naturalist as a Young Man
Chapter 4. Sailing North
Chapter 5. The Scientists' Apprentice
Chapter 6. Bronx Zoological Park
Chapter 7. Widening Horizons
Chapter 8. Nestbuilding
PART II. Ornithologist
Chapter 9. Flying South
Chapter 10. Migration
Chapter 11. The Naturalist as Author
Chapter 12. Rain Forest at Last
Chapter 13. In Search of Wildness
Chapter 14. City Lights
Chapter 15. Pheasant Jungles
Chapter 16. Western Himalayas
Chapter 17. Bearing East
Chapter 18. Recalibration
Chapter 19. Betrayal
Chapter 20. Wilderness Found
Chapter 21. Jungle Peace
PART III. Marine Biologist
Chapter 22. The Encantadas
Chapter 23. New York Aerie
Chapter 24. The Arcturus Adventure
Chapter 25. Fire and Water
Chapter 26. Elswyth
Chapter 27. Bermuda Diary
Chapter 28. Out of the Depths
Chapter 29. On the Air
Chapter 30. Half Mile Down
Chapter 31. Fishing
PART IV. Tropical Ecologist
Chapter 32. Ocean to Jungle
Chapter 33. Rancho Grande
Chapter 34. High Jungle
Chapter 35. Simla
Chapter 36. Home to Roost
Chapter 37. Simla Sunset
Selected Bibliography
Sources of Illustrations

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